TOKYO (AFP) - A man believed to be the world's longest-serving death row inmate was on Thursday granted a retrial in Japan over multiple murders in 1966, decades after doubts emerged about his guilt.
Shizuoka District Court decided to "start the retrial over the case" of Iwao Hakamada, 78, who was convicted for the grisly murder of his boss and the man's family, a court official said.
Delivering his ruling, presiding judge Hiroaki Murayama cited possible planting of evidence by investigators to win a conviction as they sought to bring closure to a crime that shocked the country.
"There is possibility that (key pieces of) evidence have been fabricated by investigative bodies," Judge Murayama said in his decision, according to Jiji Press.
He also ordered Hakamada's release, saying continued confinement "goes against justice".
Apart from the United States, Japan is the only major industrialised democracy to carry out capital punishment, a practice that has led to repeated protests from European governments and human rights groups.
Hakamada is the sixth person since the end of World War II to receive a retrial after having a death sentence confirmed, and his case will bolster opponents of capital punishment, including rights group Amnesty, which has just launched its annual report on the practice.
Shizuoka prosecutors told Japanese media that they are undecided on whether to appeal the decision, according to national broadcaster NHK.
Hakamada initially denied accusations that he robbed and killed his boss, the man's wife and two children before setting their house ablaze.
But the former boxer, who worked for a bean paste maker, later confessed following what he subsequently claimed was a brutal police interrogation that included beatings.
He retracted his confession, but to no avail, and the supreme court confirmed his death sentence in 1980.
Prosecutors and courts had used blood-stained clothes, which emerged a year after the crime and his arrest, as key evidence to convict Hakamada.
The clothes did not fit him, his supporters said. The blood stains appeared too vivid for evidence that was discovered a year after the crime. Later DNA tests found no link between Hakamada, the clothes and the blood stains, his supporters said.
But the now-frail Hakamada has remained in solitary confinement on death row.
His supporters and some lawyers, including the Japan Federation of Bar Associations, have loudly voiced their doubts about evidence, the police investigations and the judicial logic that led to the conviction.
Even one of the judges who originally sentenced Hakamada to death in 1968 has said he was never convinced of the man's guilt but could not sway his judicial colleagues who out-voted him.
Japan has a conviction rate of around 99 per cent and claims of heavy-handed police interrogations persist under a long-held belief that a confession is the gold standard of guilt.
The decision came as Amnesty International issued its annual review of reported executions worldwide, which showed Japan killed eight inmates in 2013, the ninth-largest national tally in the world.
Hakamada's sister Hideko, 81, who has passionately campaigned for a retrial for decades, thanked dozens of supporters who gathered in front of the court house.
"I want to free him as soon as possible," she told a press conference held shortly after the court announced its decision.
"I want to tell him, 'You did well. You will finally be free'," she said.
Hakamada seems to have developed psychological illnesses after decades in solitary confinement, Hideko told AFP in an interview last year.
"What I am worried about most is Iwao's health. If you put someone in jail for 47 years, it's too much to expect them to stay sane," Hideko said in the interview.
Amnesty, which has championed Hakamada's cause and says he is the world's longest-serving death row detainee, called on prosecutors to respect the court's decision.
"It would be most callous and unfair of prosecutors to appeal the court's decision," said Ms Roseann Rife, the organisation's East Asia research director.
"Time is running out for Hakamada to receive the fair trial he was denied more than four decades ago," she said.